Lori Alarcon: The Search for “Busyness”

As the AAS president, Lori Alarcon helped the AAS move past an era of controversy and rebuild its community. In student government and all her other endeavors, the biology major and aspiring doctor is driven by a deep concern for others.

Lori Alarcon: The Search for “Busyness”
Alarcon did not expect to win a seat on the AAS, let alone become president. Photo courtesy of Lori Alarcon ’24.

Lori Alarcon ’24, then president of the Association of Amherst Students, found it hard to contain her emotions at her final senate meeting this spring. She was presented with a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” signed by members of the administration and adorned with personal messages from every senator. The meeting marked the end of Alarcon’s four years on the AAS and signaled the rapid approach of graduation, but it was also a reminder of how far she had come over four years at Amherst.

Alarcon told me that, as a first-year, she at first didn’t think she could win a seat on the AAS. She also said that she once felt she “wasn’t popular enough” to be elected president. Alarcon’s friends, professors, and mentors never doubted her: She ultimately did both those things, and much more. Her years at Amherst are an encouraging reminder of our constant capacity — through hard work and dedication to causes we care about — to surprise ourselves.

A New Era for AAS

Alarcon has been about as successful as a student politician can be.  She was elected as the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) President last spring after three years on the senate. She used her tenure to rebuild an organization that wascrippled by internal divisions and pandemic-related loss of institutional knowledge. Senators describe the difference from before and after her presidency as night and day.

There are many negative stereotypes about politicians — manipulative, self-serving, dishonest — but if you ask anyone who knows Alarcon, they will agree that she conforms to none of them.

Alarcon is not always the loudest voice in the room, but she is often the most active listener, friends say. They describe her ceaseless work ethic as driven by a genuine desire to make change rather than a need for self-aggrandizement. They speak of a leader who, though committed to building community and individual relationships, is not afraid to hold people accountable.

Director of Immigration Services Hanna Bliss, who worked with Alarcon on initiatives to help undocumented immigrants on campus, is amazed by her ability to hold space for others despite her position of power and many commitments.

“She is a really attentive listener, even when she is juggling way more than any of us should ever have on our plates at one time,” Bliss said.

The position of AAS president, and the senate in general, is often subject to controversy — Alarcon’s predecessor was infamously almost impeached. Under her leadership, however, the body largely moved beyond squabbling. These days, fewer people feel compelled to ask themselves why the AAS exists or what senators do.

Before she was elected president, Alarcon wasn’t always the most vocal senator, but she was always paying attention, said Shane Dillon ’26, who served alongside her as AAS vice president “Lori spent three years … learning everything that wasn't working with [the] AAS,” he said.

Under Alarcon, meetings — which historically could last late into each Monday night — became both shorter and more productive, said Shane Dillon ’26, who served alongside her as vice president and has become a close friend. Under Alarcon’s leadership, the AAS’ executive board revamped and standardized many of the body’s processes. Alarcon also created new systems to track senators’ initiatives and hold them accountable.

“We were basically reinventing what AAS is, because nobody really knew how AAS operated before the pandemic,” Dillon said.

Alarcon said that, before she was president, the AAS’ public controversies were mirrored by a lack of investment in the body by senators themselves.

““People would just shoot out of [the meetings]; they didn’t want to be there anymore,” she said.

The AAS feels different these days.

As president, Alarcon prioritized building community. This winter, she wrote holiday letters to every single member of the senate — even the note-taker Caden Stockwell ’25.

“This past year, it didn't feel like an extra job,” Dillon said of the AAS. “It felt like a group of people who had a lot of fun ideas, and if there was a senate project that one of the senators wanted to accomplish, Lori found a way to get it done.”

Adjusting to Amherst

Politicians are also supposed to be vain, fearful of bad publicity, but Alarcon was quick to recognize that her college experience was not always easy.

All members of the class of 2024 first arrived to a campus transformed  by pandemic restrictions, but for Alarcon, who is the first member of her family to go to college, move-in was especially difficult.

She remembered feeling overwhelmed: Her parents couldn’t make the trip from her hometown of Venice, Florida, so Alarcon arrived in an Uber. As she took an initial Covid test amid the chaos in the lot behind Cohan, masked college employees at first mistook the Uber driver for one of her parents.

She was guided to a room without air conditioning on the fourth floor of Stearns, a two-room double that, because of the pandemic, she would have all to herself.

Used to the flat beaches of Florida’s Gulf Coast, Alarcon was surprised by the scenery.

“I saw a mountain and I was like, ‘What the hell? Where am I?’”

The shock did not wear off quickly.

With classes online and socialization tightly curtailed, Alarcon said that her whole first year was difficult.

She found it hard to adjust to Amherst classes, especially with many of the college’s academic resources shifted online. The hours in front of a screen each day became draining.

“Sometimes the professor would be like, ‘Okay you guys get a five minute break,’” she said. “We would all immediately go to our beds and lay down, because we were just so tired.”

Alarcon, who ultimately majored in biology, was set on the pre-med track from the beginning, and she found the coursework especially challenging. There was also a profound culture shock — not only more mountains, but fewer people saying hello in passing, fewer people to speak Spanish with.

“I wasn’t sure if I could make it, if I’m being honest,” she said. “This was such a hard and strange experience for me.”

Even in that Covid-rattled first year, however, there were many moments of joy.

Alarcon early on formed a tight group of friends with fellow participants in (virtual) Summer Bridge, a summer program that introduces first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) students to the college’s resources. Amid tight protocols of that first year, the small everyday joys of social interaction were amplified.

Movie nights with friends — even sitting six feet apart and masked in the science center — felt like a special treat. When the college eventually allowed students to have food delivered on weekends, a box of Antonio’s pizza felt like “Christmas morning.”

And though they were online, some classes proved especially memorable.

She remembered laughing every day in Professor Ronald Rossbottom’s first-year seminar, sometimes so hard she would have to turn her camera off.

Professor Ryan Alvarado, who had Alarcon in his calculus class, remembered that the tight pandemic restrictions had a way of bringing the class, which was held in-person in Seeley Mudd, together.

“There was just a tight-knit family there,” he remembered. “We were in this together and kind of isolated from everyone.”

He remembers Alarcon as an “incredibly hard-working and dedicated student.”

“I had office hours pretty much four days a week, and she was there at every single one, working through her homework,” he said.

It was also during freshman year that Alarcon first ran for senate. Though she was hesitant at first, and thought she “didn’t know enough people” to be elected, her friends ultimately convinced her to run.

“‘There's no way I'm going to become part of AAS,’” she remembered thinking. “But I already had the entire Summer Bridge group supporting me. I was like, Okay, ‘I’ll do it for you guys.’

Bird Work

Alarcon identified the summer after her first year as a crucial turning point in her Amherst experience. She participated in the STEM Incubator summer program, which trains FLI students to participate in science research.

As part of the program, Alarcon tagged along on a field trip with Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Ethan Clotfelter. It was the beginning of what she describes as her “bird work.” Clotfelter’s lab maintains a network of RFID scanners in the bird sanctuary that allow researchers to track and run experiments on Amherst’s bird populations.

Alarcon's "bird work" includes tracking and running experiments on Amherst's bird population. Photo courtesy of Lori Alarcon '24.

Alarcon’s voice sounds a little different when she talks about those birds. It gets softer and a little dreamier. She was immediately taken by them that summer, and she ultimately joined Clotfelter’s lab in the fall, a role she continued in for three years. From the beginning, Alarcon was a natural at bird work, which often involves disentangling terrified, flapping birds from mesh nets.

“They're like screaming and shaking, and you gotta stay focused and gotta concentrate,” she said. Having grown up on a farm with chickens, this was never a problem for Alarcon.

Alarcon’s time in Clotfelter’s lab provided a large boost of confidence. Knowing she could excel in the lab allowed her to feel at home in her classes and at Amherst in general.

“He was the first professor to ever look at me as an individual,” she said of Clotfelter. “He gave me a purpose in science research.”

The birds would become a constant in Alarcon’s college experience, both as a reminder that she belonged in STEM and as a general outlet for the stresses of college life.

“It's the love of my life,” she said of her bird work.

For her part, Bliss said she was taken by the “perfect juxtaposition” between Alarcon’s tireless work on campus and her time with the birds.

“I am not very good at photoshop, but someone should put Lori's face on a still of Cinderella with the birds perched on her hands and flocking around her,” she said. “That is how I picture Lori.”

Lori Lore

Though many Amherst students waver from the initial path they lay out for themselves as first-years, Alarcon has been committed to the pre-med track, her biology major, and a future career in medicine from the beginning of her time at Amherst. In fact, the roots of her passion for medicine go back much further than that.

It began with an accident, a bit of what Alarcon’s friends call “Lori Lore.” She was eight years old, next in line for a whack at a Spongebob piñata at a Mexican birthday party. Nobody realized at the time that the piñata hung from a palm tree with rotted-out roots. It began to sway and ultimately fell on Alarcon, shattering most of the bones in her leg.

Alarcon made a “miraculous” recovery, running again in just a year. As she was nursed back to health at St. Petersburg's All Children’s Hospital, she also discovered that she loved the medical setting.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome!’” she said. Especially appealing was the “busyness” of the hospital. “Everyone’s moving — it’s ecstatic for me.”

She would go on to intern at a hospital for all four years of high school, and her interest in medicine has only continued to grow in college, even as she learns more about the, she admits, daunting prospect of medical school and residency. She spent last summer as an intern at the American Association of Physicians, where she produced a bilingual educational podcast about healthcare issues. This summer, she will work alongside an obstetrician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, assisting with a study on the connection between women’s pelvis sizes and birth outcomes. After graduating this spring, she will stay at the college for a post-baccalaureate year as she completes her pre-med coursework and applies to medical schools.

The Appeal of “Busyness”

Something I noticed in talking to Alarcon is that she uses the word busy in a different way that many people. It seems to have a positive connotation. The things she loves most — the birds, the hospital — appeal to her not despite but because of their “busyness.” She loves the rapid scramble after a bird trips an RFID scanner and the hubbub of the hospital. She said that she “loves to be busy.”

And at Amherst she has certainly stayed busy. She even found the time to learn French, and she attended an eight-week intensive program at Middlebury in the summer after her freshman year.

More than anything, though, she poured her time into student government. Dillion recalled seeing it first-hand. “She dedicated every moment of her free time to [the] AAS,” he said.

Dillon attributed Alarcon’s drive — both in her long-term plans to become a doctor and her work over the last four years with the AAS — to her background as a FLI student.

“As a fellow FLI student, there's more than appreciation for coming into a position of power and wanting to use it for good,” he said. “I think she saw the potential that the AAS had — it just hadn't been accessed in the right ways.”

As a junior on senate, Alarcon dedicated herself to improving conditions at Newport House, which is home to two theme houses: La Causa, the college’s Latinx culture house, and the Spanish language house. Following student complaints about mold and other unsanitary conditions, she used her position as a senator to draw President Michael Elliott’s attention, and he agreed to tour the dorm. Ultimately, the college ordered renovations, which were completed this fall.

She also used her position on the AAS to advocate for undocumented students. Bliss said that Alarcon built some of the first supportive networks between undocumented student groups at Amherst and other colleges. She also helped establish the AAS Dreamer committee, which has advocated for more institutional support for undocumented students. “Without question, Lori has made Amherst a better place for a lot of current students and for new students to come.

Alarcon has certainly used her role as senator, and later president, to make a mark on the college. Dillion emphasized that much of the AAS’ work in the future will be built on a foundation that she created.

But Alarcon also made clear that the AAS has had a tremendous impact on her. She was open about the difficulty of adjusting to Amherst, and credited her bird work for helping build her confidence in herself as a scientist and researcher. However, she also made clear that it was not until senior year that she felt that she fully belonged on campus. “Becoming AAS president gave me a lot of confidence,” she said.

Though Alarcon’s personality — a listener, a self-described “mother of 32” (senators), a lover of busyness — shaped the role and the organization, being president also changed her.

She described herself as “a little shy,”  but the role constantly pushed her to step outside of her comfort zone. Ultimately, Lori, a listener, was driven to spread her wings, and become more of a speaker.

“It made me want to say hi to a lot more people,” she said. She became more assertive: “I’m your president. Here I am.”